Dozens of police with sniffer dogs searched the area around the church of San Pietro della Ienca in the central mountainous Abbruzzo region of Italy for a stolen relic containing a fragment of cloth stained with the blood of the late Pope John Paul II.
The relic is believed to have been stolen Saturday night from the small stone church together with a small simple cross, according to police.
Pasquale Corriere, president of the Cultural Center that takes care of the sanctuary, said he believed this was a "commissioned theft." He was alerted to the theft by his daughter, who saw the rails protecting the church sawed on Sunday morning and noticed that the relic was no longer in its place.
"Whoever broke in came for the relic, that is clear, all the rest was left untouched including the offering box," Corriere said.
The small church is in the Gran Sasso mountains near the city of l'Aquila was dear to Pope John Paul II, who visited the area more than 100 times during his papacy, where he would walk and meditate and was even known to have skied down the slopes as a young pope. The area has become a place of pilgrimage for people in search of peace or wishing to pray.
The relic is a small piece of cloth soaked in blood the pope lost during the 1980 attempt on his life in St. Peter's Square and is only one of three of its kind. This one was given to the people of L'Aquila in 2011, after the devastating earthquake that struck the area, by the pope's personal secretary, now cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz. The cardinal has visited the church a number of times since the late pope's death in 2005 and donated a bell in the pope's memory. In 2011, the church was given Sanctuary status and dedicated to Pope John Paul II.
Some experts are even suggesting that this theft could be linked to a satanic cult. Objects like this relic, with a special symbolic value, are particularly sought after by the flourishing trade in religious objects.
"This area is not known for this sort of thing and nothing like this has ever happened…I don't know what to think," said Corriere. A criminal investigation has been opened by the local prosecutor's office.
The Vatican has announced that Pope John Paul II will be made a saint on April 27, along with Pope John XXIII, and Rome is planning for millions of faithful to come for the ceremony.